Changing Your Mind About Unhappiness

If you could reduce your emotional anguish as handily as you can ease some of your physical pains, would you?

Yes? Don’t be too sure.

Two things recently set me thinking about this. One is a medical breakthrough. The other is a new book by a Harvard professor of psychology.

In the medical realm, chronic pain sufferers can now control their perception of physical discomfort using switch-operated electrodes implanted in their brains. Because they can decrease their sensation of physical agony at will, patients using such “deep brain stimulation” are in a sense happier.

Now, I’m certain that when you’re in physical pain you see the benefit of relieving it. I’m not so confident that we recognize that we can temper our experience of emotional pain as well.

Yet we do possess an internal switch to lower emotional distress and boost our level of happiness. It’s invisible and involves no wiring. With it, we can reduce the heartache—if not the actual physical discomfort—caused by a co-worker’s cutting remark, our anxiety, or even personal bankruptcy. This switch is our ability to direct our focus through the Law of Attraction.

This natural law is always in play, like gravity. Gravity dictates that “what goes up must come down.” The Law of Attraction dictates that “you get more of what you focus on.”

When you suffer emotional distress—grief, anger, or frustration, for example—you can stay focused on what bothers you or you can shift your focus to what makes you feel better. Does the dull, aching pain of worry often keep you awake? It doesn’t have to: you can redirect your thoughts of what preoccupies you to something soothing that will help you sleep.

This is not a medical breakthrough; it is an innate tool that lets us determine our response to dissatisfying experiences and remain happy in spite of them. You have complete command of this “happiness switch” and whether and when to activate it.

So why are we more skillful at relieving physical pain than we are at curbing emotional agony? Harvard’s Gilbert explores this in Stumbling on Happiness. He concludes that our minds are expert at deluding us about the anticipated sources of our happiness. (Winning Powerball $$millions might thrill you; then again, luck at the lottery could just as easily bring you millions of new worries!)

Because our expectations of what will make us happy often prove misestimates, we come to feel that we cannot determine whether to be happy. It is this lack of a sense of control that trips us up, says Gilbert.

We are forever trying to control others and life’s every circumstance. Yet we ignore the one arena in which we can always produce positive results—because when you focus on a thing, you are acting to attract more of it, rather than being acted upon by random events. It’s the difference between eating sensibly or gobbling a dozen donuts every day and lamenting, “I can’t understand why I’m putting on weight!”

We live in a wonderful age. We’re discovering so much about cause and effect within the mind and in the world beyond it. Yet knowledge without action is worthless. If we spent as much time planning what we will focus on each day as we do planning what we’re going to eat, we would enjoy smoother and happier lives.

As you go about your day and find yourself suffering some emotional discomfort—no matter how minor—take time to hit your internal switch of focus and lessen your mental suffering.

It’s a no-brainer!

Download a PDF of this column